Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths

Visualizing times gone by is difficult, even when surrounded by highly visible ancient remnants.

Baths to accommodate 3,000? That number finally hit me for some reason. Wait, how big was Rome?

The Diocletian Baths, built beginning about the year 290, could accommodate 3,000 people bathing, getting a shave and a haircut, exercising, reading in the library, gathering for gossip and, well okay, visiting the brothel. Not sure in which order these activities were engaged.

But the Diocletian Baths were not the only baths. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in ancient Rome.

Which finally sent me back to try to understand the immense size not of the sprawling Roman Empire, but of Rome itself.

The AlamoDome in San Antonio seems large to this girl; it can accommodate 64,000. The Coliseum in Rome could house somewhere in the range of 75,000 people, who could all exit within a 15-minute period after Emperor Diocletian (244-311) had executed some of the thousands of Christians he made into saints during several prime years of persecution.

But that was still a small house in Rome. Other special events attracted even larger crowds; close to 300,000 could gather to watch chariot races at Circus Maximus.

Wait, where did all those people come from? The majority were just locals. The population of Rome then was well over 1,000,000. So hard to envision an ancient urban environment that dense.

Things would change dramatically in only a view years. The collapse of the empire, invasions by those pesky Goths. The population evacuated for new opportunities or was devastated by pestilence. During the 1300s, with schism in the papacy between Rome and Avignon, Rome had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

But I digress, once again.

The photos below are from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano housed on the grounds of the former baths and portions renovated/remodeled into cloisters for a Carthusian monastery, commissioned in 1561 by Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) of the Medici clan and designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564).

More recent remodeling to house the collection and special exhibits was completed in 2014. Thousands of the museum’s holdings once crammed akimbo into this one location are now spread out for improved viewing around several locations.

And, by the way, sometimes there was a lot of r-rated activity happening on the outside of those sarcophagi.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Revving up the classics

People increasingly need decoration, because it has the same function as music: it seems not to be really necessary but it is. It’s food for our souls.

Barnaba Fornasetti

Classical sculpture. Architecture from the Renaissance. On the street corners. In the plazas. By the metro stations. Artistic creations from throughout the ages are woven into a Roman’s everyday life.

The classics cannot be avoided in this city. So why isolate statues in stagnant museum halls as though they are deceased gods with no relevance to the culture of today?

Several current exhibitions in Rome buck the traditional staid curatorial approach to displaying the art of the past. Among these is “Citazioni Pratiche (Practical Quotes): Fornasetti Palazzo Altemps” at Palazzo Altemps, part of Museo Nazionale Romano.

Curated by Barnaba Fronasetti of Atelier Fornasetti and Valeria Manzi, the exhibit setting up playful interaction between the ancient and contemporary is mounted in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the museum and 70 years of the studio’s designs. Both are treated with respect in the spacious Renaissance palace, with the classical impact and role in modern Italian design repeatedly saluted.

The palace housing the collection originally belonged to Girolamo Riario (1443-1488), a Captain General of the church under his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484). Riario played an active role in the 1478 Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici family, an operation only partially successful: Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) survived the plot.

Machiavelli had yet to pen his advice:

If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513

Several of the participants in the scheme were strung up above the walls of Florence by Medici allies, but Pope Sixtus IV rewarded his nephew Riario with a conciliation prize, making him Count of Forli. Accumulating an increasing number of enemies through years of intrigue and involvement in papal politics, Riario later was assassinated and thrown into the piazza below his quarters.

The ultimate Medici revenge might have been the 1568 purchase of the palazzo by the German-born Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps (1533-1595). Altemps’ rise to power in the church was facilitated by his uncle, Pope Pius IV (1499-1565), whose civilian name was Giovanni di Bicci de Medici. Possibly Altemps was responsible for the addition of capricious prancing rams in the decorative trim throughout the palazzo.

And, yes, by the way, the featured Fender takes the man and guitar harem metaphor way too literally.